W hen Gearbox tackles a new franchise, it doesn’t do anything by half-measures. Last-generation’s Borderlands series revitalized how we think of shooters, blending solid RPG mechanics with enough loot to satisfy any Diablo nut.
Battleborn is equally ambitious, bringing some of Borderlands’ best elements to bear in a recipe that defies simple definition. Gearbox’s writing continues to be a highlight, with punchy one-liners, quirky characters, and masterful voice casting.
While the playable cast is largely overshadowed in the narrative by the non-playable characters who frame the missions, the diverse robots, soldiers, elves, demons, and other heroes all have style. One of the allures of the new trend toward character-based multiplayer games is it gives writers and designers more room to flesh out unique p ersonalities.
We played a new story mission both cooperatively and solo, and it pitted us against a malicious A.I. with a Handsome Jack-style sense of humor.
Instead of getting held up at checkpoints to fight off waves of enemies, we had a bit more control this time. Progressing through the linear level meant destroying large shards powering gates and force fields. Along the way, there were copious pick-ups to enhance health regeneration, speed, and s hields.
While Battleborn comes from the same studio that gave us Borderlands, it doesn’t have a cohesive feel yet. Hits on target don’t yet offer strong feedback. This is extremely troublesome when playing a melee character. Knowing if you’re connecting with your strikes is crucial when you don’t have the benefit of a broad view of the battlefield and, instead, could find yourself up close and personal with the terrain while chasing an enemy.
The writing in the two stages we’ve played is sharp and voiced well, but it feels disconnected from the action on the battlefield. It’s almost as if an audio track is playing over the action with little to no reference to what your team is doing. For instance, when playing solo, Kleese was yelling to trigger something for the third or fourth time while we were in the process of activating the item.
The best part of the mission comes during the multi-stage boss fight. In multiplayer, this was a satisfyingly strategic experience in which support players gave damage dealers breathing room to activate objects in the environment to progress the battle. While solo play is crucial for games, it doesn’t have the same hook in this stage.
Going it alone robs you of a key distraction strategy. You can purchase drones in the environment, but the boss seems wise to the A.I. Borderlands was better with friends, and it appears that will be doubly true for Battleborn.
While we knew what to expect of the single-player going in, the multiplayer proved the larger disappointment. We had the chance to sample two modes. The first, Command, is a rote control point type with three capture zones. The second borrows from both tower defense and MOBAs.
Meltdown sends waves of minions from both sides toward sacrifice zones. Your job is to escort your robot troops and destroy opposing drones. Of course, you’re going to meet the enemy team in the middle, which is where the fun is supposed to happen.
Unlike MOBAs, which require players to strategically use minions to chip away at extremely powerful turrets and then retreat, Battleborn’s Meltdown mode is closer to a deathmatch with an added wrinkle. I suspect I would have had more fun playing this as a ranged character, but I wanted to sample a melee fighter for balance.
Gearbox needs to work on its closecombat characters. The sword combat currently feels muddy and aimless. Players need better communication (visually and aurally) when making contact with enemies, especially with special effects like blinding not having a signifier icon. This ultimately left me frustrated, even when successfully defeating A.I. and human opponents a like.
The good news is that there is still time for Gearbox to course correct. Battleborn has enormous potential. It just needs to start living up to it.